x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Mohamed ElBaradei, the man shaking Egypt from political slumber

Egypt is a fascinating, chaotic and exciting country but it can be a frustrating place for journalists, especially for freelancers trying to scratch a living.

Egypt is a fascinating, chaotic and exciting country in which to live, with a history that stretches back into the mists of time, and complex societal structures with rich, compelling human stories. But it can be a frustrating place for journalists, especially for freelancers trying to scratch a living. The problem is that most of the colour stories, the elegant portraits of Egyptian life that used to get editors twitching with excitement, have been done to death, dissected and reported on numerous times.

And the meatier stories, tales of power politics, intrigue and unrest, have been hard to come by in a country where the political structures have been stubbornly stable. There has been little change since 1979 when Hosni Mubarak took over the leadership, declared emergency law, and gathered a close group of people around him who have loyally ensured the status quo has been maintained. Opposition, when it has popped its head above the parapet, has been controversially shut down.

One result of all this has been that young people, normally a fertile breeding ground for dissent and unrest, have remained passive and dispassionate, preferring to toe the line and keep out of politics. Government crack downs, continued arrests, and civilians put on military trials, have seen organisations such as Kefaya, the unofficial name for the Egyptian Movement for Change, start to fade from the public eye, their activities and protests dying down as things slid back to "normal."

Then, last month, something changed. Mohamed ElBaradei came back to town having left his post as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog. This is new blood, despite him being in his 50s, and internationally respected and acclaimed new blood at that. He has a Nobel Peace Prize under his arm and a voice that inspires. Immediately the chatter started: was this the man who could kick start political life and bring change to a regime that hasn't budged in 30 years?

When he touched down in Cairo for his first short visit after relinquishing his post, the airport was heaving with crowds of cheering supporters and activists eager to greet him. And now that he is back in Egypt for good, his face is being splashed on the front page of every newspaper and TV station, except those run by the state, of course. Mr ElBaradei hasn't been quiet. He has granted interviews, allowed reporters to follow him wherever he visits, has met with opposition members, appeared on television chat shows, formed an association he called the National Association for Change, and has even called for a boycott of elections if constitutional changes are not forthcoming. As the law stands at the moment, the constitution forbids anyone who isn't approved by the government to run for office ... making it kind of problematic to, well, run for office.

Everyone is talking about Mr ElBaradei and everyone wants a piece of him. Journalists, competing with each other to get an interview with the man, always start with the question: Are you going to run for president? Supporters say his international profile will protect him, allowing him to take risks other opposition members dare not attempt. Above all, he is inspiring old guard activists to raise their voice once again.

Two protests this month saw tens of demonstrators arrested amid accusations of police violence, but organisers say they will continue to march. And so with the first small rumblings of discontent in Egypt and the huge interest in the new kid in town, it is becoming more and more exciting to watch the developments ... and pitch the stories. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo